Every time I’ve started a blog post in the last month, I’ve felt profoundly guilty about not working instead on my dissertation, or academic articles, or stories for publication. I want to be so much better at this mystical work/life balance I hear so much about, but until I am, I have to accept that I’m not going to be able to juggle everything, and some activities are going to fall to the wayside.
To this end, the above image comes from the Aesop’s story dearest to my heart, and most vital to my experience as a doctoral candidate. I’ve joked a great deal about getting a tattoo to symbolize the lesson it embodies, but for me, any story I could get someone to depict with ink-on-skin would make a better story as ink-on-paper (or darker pixels on light). The version of this tale in the Harvard Classics edition reads as follows:
A MAN and his son were once going with their Donkey to market. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: “You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?”
So the Man put the Boy on the Donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: “See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides.”
So the Man ordered his Boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn’t gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”
Well, the Man didn’t know what to do, but at last he took his Boy up before him on the Donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor Donkey of yours—you and your hulking son?”
The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the Donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the Donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the Donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the Boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the Donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.
“That will teach you,” said an old man who had followed them:
“PLEASE ALL, AND YOU WILL PLEASE NONE.”
This story has different meanings for me in relation to academic and personal (fictional) writing. Last week, I received my first feedback from the last of my committee members, and had a good chuckle over how much each member’s suggestions and interpretations differed. This was to be expected, of course, since each professor is their own person, and their critical intersections with my research vary in turn. The trick will “simply” be to find the right balance between all their competing suggestions–a task I am happy to put off until my final two chapters are drafted. As with my brief stint in the playwriting field, for my PhD programme I am literally writing “by committee”–and as much as I detested that approach when it came to playwriting, I grudgingly recognize the importance of such daunting peer-review in the academic realm.
However, this approach could not be further removed from how I (happily) write fiction, and engage with critical feedback therein. Charlie Jane Andrews of io9.com recently posted a pleasant article on this theme, “How to Deal with Harsh Criticism of Your Writing,” but while she offers excellent suggestions to meet the challenges of ego as a writer, I find that my hang-ups tend toward different extremes.
I’ve written before, for instance, on the sheer privilege of being reviewed at all. Not all paying venues get reviewed, but many of my sci-fi stories still fall Lois Tilton’s way in Locus Magazine, or into the hands of any number of reviewers for Tangent Online. Tilton’s comments on my work to date have ranged from flat-out dislike to lukewarm praise, but as someone who thoroughly enjoys critics who have no qualms panning a work, I therefore find her commentary a delight every time. If I ever write something she sees fit to recommend, I will take that as a real accomplishment–and in the meantime, I treasure the insight her reviews offer into how readers with no investment in me as a person tend to receive my writing.
Occasionally, too, this means I get to see my growth as a writer spelled out over time. For example, Tilton and a reviewer from Tangent Online both used the same descriptor in the vicinity of “Live from the Air Chair” (Analog, September 2015). As both considered the work to be “competent”, that tells me a great deal about my next steps as a writer. The writing’s probably fine unto itself, but my story clearly lacked the “oomph” needed to make its reading more memorable. That’s a great working note!
Another meaningful review came from the F&SF forum, where in the past I’ve experienced the most disarming feedback to date, after making the mistake of introducing myself and talking about the piece I’d just published. (Many SF&F authors do on that forum, so it seemed kosher at the time, but–never again!) The Analog story in question was treated harshly in that forum for reasons I hadn’t expected; I had an all-female crew of astronauts being interviewed en route to a doomed Mars colony, but I still didn’t anticipate that they’d be read as sex workers in a deeply pejorative sense, or that the historical counterpart I opened with–the “filles du roi” who make up a strong component of Canadian history–would be treated the same. This is the only time negative feedback has actually shaken me, because it exposed me to some pretty ugly, yet perfectly naturalized views about women among readers of SF&F. Recent events in the SF&F community have prompted me to recognize that this is just par for the course, but it leaves me squeamish all the same; I much prefer being told that people hated the writing style for that piece.
In any case, an F&SF-forum reviewer this time around made a tremendously useful comment; to her, my latest Analog story was “well written, [with a] good plot[,] but it felt like a middle chapter of a novel which I found annoying.” Tilton similarly felt that the action she most wanted to see–the initial break-up between main characters, and the resolution of the main conflict–happened off-screen. These were choices I made consciously (one, to start the story in medias res; and two, to keep the protagonist firmly in anti-hero mode, as a dude who just wants to play and make music), but my intentions don’t justify diddly-squat if the follow-through still leaves the reader feeling bored or left out.
(Moreover, I’ve been inching into long works over the last few months, with novellas ranging from 13- to 33,000 words currently in submission queues, so the quest for a proper longer project is clearly upon me. This reviewer just confirmed that sneaking suspicion, so hers was wonderfully motivating criticism.)
Put simply, my real hang-ups lie elsewhere: in submission queues, where all manner of superstition comes into play. Have I been accepted by a given magazine before? Yes? Then for some reason I take every subsequent rejection much harder than I otherwise would have–as if my “fraud” as a writer was finally recognized by the magazine’s most excellent editor, after any number of fluke successes. Recently, I’ve been trying to overcome this nonsensical worldview with increased submissions to places that leave me terrified in this bizarre way, but there’s still more work to be done.
Or what about unconquered markets that have offered very kind rejections? Surely these should just encourage me to submit more work, right? Hah. No. After receiving the warmest of praise from F&SF‘s C. C. Finlay, in a long rejection letter for a work he held onto for three months (and which will be published now by GigaNotoSaurus at year’s end), I actually found myself afraid to send him another piece. I will rectify this bizarre situation by summer’s end, so help me! But the whole process has left me with some surprising insights into the silliness of my character.
Neil Gaiman once wrote about criticism, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” I find this to be far less true with academic writing, where I essentially have a team of editors helping me produce the best possible scholarship; where the pressure to complete my degree in good standing (that is, in a timely fashion, with job prospects!) makes despair a relentless part of the critical process; and where my greatest challenge lies in trying to accommodate so many informed opinions without losing my own voice and direction.
But for personal writing?
To me, fiction is, at its best, a conversation mostly with people I’ve never met, and who will only ever really know me through what they see upon a given page. This weird state of affairs is thrilling for me; I look forward to encountering new voices in the process, I enjoy the test of my ideas that emerges when I set a given labour-of-love before an editor or audience, and I relish the blunt input of people whose loyalties will never lie with the oh-so-easily-bruised ego of an individual writer.
Suffice it to say, I know I’m still so very much in process, with my best work hopefully still ahead. But that doesn’t stop me from shooting myself in the foot from time to time, or otherwise giving over to feelings of futility and despair. The further I advance in disciplines that value criticism as highly as academia and publishing do, the more I need to remember that all feedback has the potential to push a body forward. Certainly, the world is rife with impediments to progress, but the strangeness of our heads also plays a dangerous role in ensuring that any external criticism we might receive–praise and condemnation alike–has the power to hold us back.
Not today, brain. Not today.